Revisiting a life spent on the ropes

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Years before professional wrestling became a pop culture phenomenon punctuated by pay-per-view extravaganzas and pyrotechnics, Wayne Coleman was clearly ahead of his time.

Performing as Superstar Billy Graham, with tie-dyed attire, bleached-blond hair and a chiseled, bronze physique, and spouting Muhammad Ali-inspired jive talk, Coleman provided a vivid diversion during wrestling's era of dimly lit arenas and grainy UHF stations in the 1970s.By the time wrestling hit a boom in the mid-'80s, however, Coleman's star had faded. Wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura -- who both have acknowledged to patterning their look and ring personas after Coleman -- became household names and millionaires. Coleman, meanwhile, spent more than two decades in a downward spiral of failed comebacks, squandered money, drug addiction, depression and health problems that were attributed to his longtime abuse of anabolic steroids.

Surviving several near-death experiences, Coleman says he turned his life around after receiving a liver transplant nearly four years ago. Finally happy and healthy, Coleman, 63, will be among 30 old-school wrestlers appearing at the Capitol Wrestling Legends Fanfest this weekend in Rockville.

"I'm very excited about coming to the fanfest, and I'm really looking forward to seeing some folks that I haven't seen in years," Coleman says via telephone from his home in Phoenix. "I'm very fortunate to have survived to this age and still be in incredibly good health. I should have been taken out many times just by all the drug overdoses alone."

Coleman's story, which is chronicled in his autobiography, Tangled Ropes, and a DVD that were released by World Wrestling Entertainment earlier this year, has as many twists and turns as any plot on WWE broadcasts.

As a teenager, the future wrestling world champion believed his calling was to save souls, so he left high school to become a traveling evangelist for several years. Bodybuilding also was one of his passions. In the late 1960s, Coleman moved to Los Angeles, where he became friends and training partners with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Coleman turned to pro wrestling in 1970.

Early in his wrestling career, Coleman met a flamboyant wrestler named Jerry Graham, a former headliner who sought one more run. The two formed a tag team, with Coleman playing the role of Graham's younger brother, Billy Graham, a moniker Coleman chose as a tribute to one of his heroes -- the Rev. Billy Graham. He took on "Superstar" as his nickname due to the popularity at the time of the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar.

Coleman eventually broke away from Jerry Graham and began refining his distinct wrestling character. As a heel (wrestling villain), Coleman was someone the fans loved to hate. What made him different from other bad guys was his undeniable charisma and colorful outfits. Of course, what made him unique among all wrestlers was his ripped physique during a time when many of his peers were barrel-chested and stocky.

Coleman says he achieved that look by taking large amounts of steroids.

"I guess I have the dubious title of being the inspirer of many guys to take steroids from that point on in wrestling," he says. "It was just a personal choice for me. The instant gratification and the reward of having that physique made you absolutely blind to any potential side effects or complications."

That attitude proved costly years later.

Coleman reached the pinnacle of his career when promoter Vince McMahon Sr. (the father of the current WWE chairman) chose him to win the heavyweight championship from the legendary Bruno Sammartino on April 30, 1977, at the Baltimore Civic Center.

"It was a magical night," Coleman recalls. "The intensity of the fan reaction was incredible. They've been so desensitized now by overexposure and things like that, that you really don't see intensity like that anymore. When we had the return match at Madison Square Garden, the fan reaction was so loud that Bruno and I had to shout to each other about the next sequence of moves we wanted to do."

Coleman was a tremendous draw during his 10 months as champion. He acknowledges that he wasn't the most skilled grappler, but his gift of gab allowed him to talk fans into the building. Imitating Ali's cadence and mannerisms, Coleman spoke in rhymes in his interviews:

I'm the man of the hour; the man with the power, too sweet to be sour. I'm the reflection of perfection, the number one selection. I'm the women's pet, the men's regret. What you see is what you get, and what you don't see is better yet.

"Stylistically he was way ahead of his time," says Dave Meltzer, editor and publisher of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "Had Billy come along six or seven years later, he may have been in Hogan's spot and he may have been every bit as successful. If he was around now, he wouldn't just be one of the top guys, he would be the top guy."

Several months into his title reign, Coleman began to notice that a segment of the crowd was starting to cheer him. In those days, it was unheard of for fans to show support for a heel.

"The younger fans were happy to see a more colorful personality in the era of black wool wrestling tights and black boots," Coleman says. "I started having fans clubs spring up. That was my real calling -- to be a babyface [wrestling good guy]. The people were waiting for it to happen. As a babyface, I could have had another four- or five-year run as champion."

It was never intended for Coleman to be a long-term champion, however. He was the bridge to the wrestler McMahon Sr. considered the real heir to Sammartino, a red-haired, All-American-boy type named Bob Backlund. So, at the height of his box-office appeal, Coleman passed the torch to Backlund as planned.

Losing the title and his spot in the main events was devastating for Coleman, who says he was addicted to prescription medications and went into a severe depression. Even though he says he made approximately $150,000 in 1977 (making him the second-highest paid wrestler behind Andre the Giant that year, he says), a contentious divorce and his purchases of steroids and other drugs left him in financial trouble.

A lengthy sabbatical and a string of overdoses followed. The rumor among wrestling fans was that Coleman had died, and his death from cancer actually was reported in the Philadelphia Journal in 1981. When Coleman returned to wrestling, it was obvious the magic was gone.

His final comeback attempt in 1986 with WWE (then known as the World Wrestling Federation), which had achieved mainstream status under the direction of Vince McMahon Jr., was derailed when his doctor told him he needed hip replacement. The steroids had eroded his joints, Coleman says his doctor told him.

Incredibly, Coleman continued taking steroids in an attempt to wrestle after the surgery. His career as an active wrestler ended about a year later when the bone began deteriorating in his right ankle, and he needed to have it fused. Stints as a manager and commentator were unsuccessful, and Coleman was released by the WWF in 1989.

Coleman says he was extremely angry over being let go, and he had a falling out with McMahon. In 1991, Coleman sued the WWF, alleging in his lawsuit that the company had made him a steroid addict. Coleman later dropped the lawsuit, admitting that he was taking steroids long before he worked for the WWF.

He and McMahon reconciled 10 years later while Coleman -- who says doctors told him he had 30 days to live -- was waiting for a liver transplant due to hepatitis C.

McMahon welcomed Coleman back into the fold, inducting him into WWE's Hall of Fame in 2004 and putting him on the payroll to make appearances at various WWE events.

Life is good now, says Coleman, who lives with his wife of 28 years, Valerie, and spends much of his time painting. Specializing in Southwestern art, he says he will have his first showing next year in Phoenix.

No longer bitter about missing out on the fame and fortune achieved by those who imitated him, Coleman now embraces his place in wrestling history.

"The DVD has really opened the eyes of the younger fans to my role in the building of the business," he says. "I'm getting my just due as the man who inspired Hulk and Jesse Ventura and a lot of other folks. It's very rewarding and a great legacy to have."

kevin.eck@baltsun.com

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